Travel Books

The Representative | by Caroline Fraser

Erik Tanner/Contour/Getty Images

Ilhan Omar, New York City, April 2018

After the election of 2018, the US Congress became the most racially and ethnically diverse it had ever been. The freshman class contained a record number of incoming women (thirty-six), including the four young progressives who came to be called “the Squad”: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. The current Congress boasts the largest Black caucus in congressional history—fifty-five members in the House and Senate, including Lucy McBath, a Black woman and gun-control advocate from Georgia whose son was shot and killed by a white man for playing music too loudly—and the first two Native American women ever elected, Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas.

The official ceremonies in January 2019 were characterized by long, tearful embraces, thousands of selfies, and what one observer termed “a sacred-secular smorgasbord” of oath-supporting books: two copies of the US Constitution, seven versions of the Bible, and copies of the Quran, the Tanakh (or Hebrew Bible), the Hindu Veda, and a Buddhist sutra. Tlaib was sworn in on a copy of the Quran that had belonged to Thomas Jefferson. But despite the media attention lavished on this groundbreaking class, it didn’t take long for Ilhan Omar to experience, in the halls of the Capitol itself, the ultimate in racist presumption. Near the end of her autobiography, This Is What America Looks Like, Omar describes the police response to her arrival.

She and her young white male chief of staff, Connor McNutt, were proceeding through freshman orientation, going from table to table, filling out forms, getting pictures taken for ID cards, applying for staff insurance, and picking out office furniture. At the last table, where Capitol police were discussing security issues with incoming members, a white male officer addressed himself solely to McNutt, refusing to look at Omar, going so far as to turn his chair away and lower his voice to exclude her, assuming his fellow white male was the newly elected representative. For his part, McNutt deferred to his boss, waiting to see whether Omar, no stranger to confrontation, would take issue with the officer. Omar, who chose not to, says that she was “trying hard not to laugh.” At the end of his presentation, the officer heartily shook McNutt’s hand and said, “Good luck!”

Omar notes that “there has never been a member of Congress who looks or sounds anything like me.” She considers the pride and pain of being “first”: She is one of the first two Muslim women in the House, the first Somali-American and the first naturalized citizen of African birth in Congress, the first woman of color to represent Minnesota, and the first Muslim woman to wear a hijab in the Capitol. The hijab alone was so unimaginable that a 181-year-old ban on the wearing of hats on the House floor had to be addressed before she could be sworn in.

Almost without exception, political autobiography is a timid and baldly agenda-driven subgenre, radiant with self-regard and larded with fatuous platitudes about “fighting for families.” But given the drama of Omar’s early life in Somalia and her experiences as a refugee, it is not surprising that her book stands out. Unlike many politicians, she does have a story to tell, one that illuminates her politics and her combative style.

Born in Mogadishu in 1982, Ilhan Abdullahi Omar was the youngest of seven children, and her mother died when she was two. She has no memories of her and wistfully recalls visiting a hypnotist to see if she could dredge up “something, anything—a voice, a touch,” but could remember nothing. Although well-supplied with aunts and an older sister in a large, multigenerational family, she writes that “mothers were a big deal to me.”

Among her early memories, she fondly recollects her strategic thrashing of a bigger kid, a class bully, when she was seven. Despite being a “runt,” as she calls herself, she objected to his pushing around a smaller, orphaned boy while yelling “Hooyadawus!” (“Go fuck your mother” in Somali). She calmly explained to the orphan that bullies must be dealt with “if you don’t want them messing with you every day,” a position she maintains. After school, she sprang on the oppressor and ground his face in the sand. “I was small but a good fighter,” she says. When she talks about fighting in the book, she often enough means it quite literally.

Her family was middle-class and the attitude of the elders toward girls and women unusually liberal. Her maternal grandfather, “Baba,” supervised the country’s lighthouses and loved to cook Italian food; he supported education for women, “treated us as equals,” and did not assume they would cook and clean, “like most Somali women” were expected to do. At bedtime, her other grandfather told her a popular folk tale about a diminutive African queen, Araweelo, who ruled over men. Omar’s mother had been raised to be independent and prior to marriage had been employed as secretary to a government minister. Her father, or aabe, agreed, on his wife’s request, to move in with her family when he married. Omar recalls that their Mogadishu compound was “filled with African art, books of history and Somali poetry, and music,” and populated by a lively cast of siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents constantly hashing out family business and events of the day in disputatious fashion, laying the foundation for Omar’s natural pugilism and self-confidence.

Omar and her siblings were delivered to school each day in a white Toyota Corolla by a driver, a privilege she found troublesome since it drew the ire of poorer classmates. Until she was eight she enjoyed the life of a tomboy, climbing trees, playing soccer, sneaking into movie theaters, and snatching sticks from bushes growing by the compound gate for the purpose of “beating back any kid who chased me home from school.” But then the war broke out.

The Somali civil war, which began in the early 1990s and continues to this day, destroyed the country with a speed that stunned the adults of the family. She heard them numbly repeating, “I don’t understand how everything just turned.” Schools, mosques, and markets closed. Constant gunfire made it impossible to go out. Fresh food was unattainable, and the family lived on stored kidney beans and rice, lucky to have that when others were starving. “One day I had everything I needed, so much joy,” Omar writes, “the next, it all vanished.” During the first year of the war, starvation, disease, and fighting claimed the lives of some 350,000 of her countrymen.

The family tried to ride it out, but the war arrived at their compound in 1991, when neighborhood boys—former classmates of the children, refashioned as a militia—broke down the gates, stripped the car to an empty shell, and whispered through the window, “You are going to die today.” An uncle fired a shot in the air to scare them off, but the family fled the following morning, splitting up, many of them boarding cattle trucks for the first leg of the trip to Kenya. Buried under the bodies of panicking adults, Omar was nearly smothered.

They made it to the coast. After a night spent sleeping on a beach, an aunt made inquiries about aabe only to be told that he and Omar’s brothers had been killed and her sister raped. “I tried to prepare myself for life as an orphan,” she recalls. The next morning, walking down the beach, she heard her father’s voice, as if in a dream, and followed it. Mercifully, the reports had been wrong: “I went and put my hand on his face, just to make sure he was real. And he was.”

The family continued on to the Somali port city of Kismayo, where they spent months. It too was war-torn, and while their clan was among those tolerated early on, food shortages grew intense. Omar worried constantly about her grandfather, who had stayed behind, while the family sold jewelry and other possessions to get all its members out of Mogadishu.

Hostile factions eventually displaced them from Kismayo, but their trip to neighboring Kenya was complicated by the fact that Omar and her favorite aunt, Fos, who was pregnant, were too weak to make the grueling journey on foot. Ultimately, the two were smuggled out aboard a small plane used to fly “contraband shrimp,” and the family, its members reunited again, began life anew as refugees in the Utange camp, a few miles west of Mombasa, on a field of red dirt baking in the sun. Omar was ten.

Fos was Omar’s habaryar, which she defines as “small mom” in Somali, her protector and “the person watching out for me”; she was good-natured, calm, and efficient. She had been a teacher of math, music, and dance in Omar’s elementary school: “She did everything with coiffed hair and in heels. I can still hear the sound of her heels clicking on the floor.” When Omar got in trouble with other adults, Fos would ease the way, saying, “This is my sister’s baby. Everybody leave her alone.”

Two weeks after arriving at the Utange camp, Fos contracted malaria. There was no medication. As Omar watched her failing, an experience “longer and sadder than anything I had ever known,” she did what she could to save her, combing the camp for folk cures. Fos rallied briefly one morning only to collapse, pleading for Omar to fetch Fos’s father to recite a final prayer. In the tent, Omar watched helplessly as Fos died.

That hardest death was followed by scores more, as fellow refugees were carted off in wheelbarrows, victims of malaria, dysentery, and malnutrition: “Every week, somebody else died…. Kids were constantly being orphaned. I would play soccer with a boy one morning, and the next he would be an orphan.” The numbing wave of mortality was accompanied by a sense of “communal responsibility” as relatives scrambled to care for surviving children. The first year and a half was marked by constant illness: her father, too, had malaria, as did siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles, while Omar contracted a serious case of chicken pox. The adults, she recalls, were overwhelmed by exhaustion and fear, walking around “like zombies…like shells of humans,” each of them “drowning in a sea of the unknown, alone.”

Recovering, the surviving refugees began to emerge from their “funk.” Omar served as “errand boy,” gathering firewood, trading beans for kerosene, and waiting in long lines to fetch water and food. Despite her father’s misgivings, she developed adult tastes, becoming a card sharp by elbowing her way into men’s games, paying a few shillings to go to the “movies,” Bollywood films shown on a TV. There was little schooling, and existence was anything but stable, since parts of the camp were routinely burned by Kenyans eager to be paid to rebuild it. But Omar, surrounded by friends and family, had no desire to leave. Her ability to survive, even thrive, under chaotic conditions appears to have been a harbinger of a taste for political battle.

The adults, however, began planning their escape, applying first for refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and then for resettlement in the US. The bureaucratic process took a year or so, and after interviews, background checks, and health screenings, Omar’s father and his children were awarded the “golden ticket” to America. Their orientation consisted of journeying to Nairobi to watch a video of an American family devouring “the biggest roasted chicken I had ever seen,” something she later realized was a turkey.

In March 1995, after four years as refugees, Omar’s immediate family, sponsored by Catholic Charities, boarded a flight to New York City, en route to Arlington, Virginia. She was dressed in Nairobi flea market finery: tapered-leg jeans, a burgundy Ultrasuede jacket, and dance shoes, hoping to fit in and prove herself worthy of a country she knew only from old cowboy movies and propaganda. But her first emotion was disappointment: in a New York taxicab, on the way to a hotel, she grew “distraught,” horrified by streets piled with mountains of trash and homeless people sleeping on sidewalks. “This isn’t America,” she protested to her father, and he replied, “This isn’t our America. We’ll get to our America.”

Father and children moved into a two-bedroom apartment, applied for Social Security cards, and bought more clothes at Goodwill. Her father, a government minister in Somalia, began driving a cab at the airport. Omar was twelve and knew two English expressions: “hello” and “shut up.” She had had no formal schooling for years. Enrolled in a public middle school, the only Somali kid in her class, she struggled, going hungry for a week before she understood that she was entitled to eat in the cafeteria, fighting with kids who stared at her, pushed her, or stuck gum on her hijab: “I could bleed every day and go cry in a corner. Or I could fight back and have people respect me.” Quick with her fists, she spent much of her first year in detention, where she learned English and began to adapt. One of her teachers wrote in her yearbook, “Ilhan in ’96: ‘Hello and shut up.’ Ilhan in ’97, ‘Hi, my name’s Ilhan. I want to be your friend.’”

By 1997, when the family moved to Minneapolis, which has the country’s largest concentration of Somali refugees, Omar was a teenager. Most of her older siblings split off, leaving her with her father and grandfather to absorb American culture by watching Baywatch and Johnny Depp movies, savoring tuna sandwiches made with ketchup. At Edison High School, where “everyone fought everyone,” she began favoring dialogue over fisticuffs, helping to found a coalition, “Unity in Diversity,” to parley over “our racially charged environment.” It was her first political act, perhaps inspired by her attendance at Minnesota caucuses, tagging along at age fourteen as her grandfather’s interpreter, translating a “really messy” process that was interrupted, on occasion, by someone yelling, “That’s not how you do it!”

Flaunting her hair, strips of it dyed blond like Beyoncé’s (and dubbed “the Lion’s Mane” by her father), she was often in trouble with her harried parent, who pleaded with her not to do “anything that would make me throw you and myself in the Mississippi.” At sixteen, she met Ahmed Abdisalan Hirsi, another young Somali refugee. At seventeen, she became a US citizen (a process she does not describe here); at eighteen, in 2001, she married Hirsi in the Muslim fashion, after the families’ males engaged in extensive negotiation, brokering an agreement. The following year, they filled out paperwork for a marriage license but never completed the application, considering themselves already married, a common practice in the Somali community. In February 2003 they had their first child, Isra, named for one of the surahs, or chapters, of the Quran.

Omar’s account of her childhood is gripping and sometimes moving, revealing a self-deprecating humor and capacity for blunt, unsparing judgment. “War doesn’t restore,” she notes after the events of September 11, 2001, “it just robs. It takes everything.” But her autobiography inevitably arrives at fraught territory—adulthood, marriage, and political life—and gaps appear, along with a troubling vagueness. After Omar became a public figure, questions about the legality and circumstances of her several marriages would give rise to conspiracy theories and disputes over her tax returns. Her autobiography provided an opportunity to correct the record. It does not.

By turns confiding and withholding, Omar explains the decision not to pursue a legal marriage to Hirsi but glosses over subsequent divorces and remarriages. She never gives his full name, referring to him only as “Ahmed.” She never alludes to Hirsi’s professional life, although his résumé is hardly the stuff of scandal: he was a student-aid adviser at Saint Paul College, a banker at Wells Fargo for eleven years, the founder of a financial literacy organization for immigrants, and ultimately a senior policy aide to a Minneapolis city council member. Autobiographies are often clouded by such obscurities, but given that Omar has publicly described Hirsi, the father of her children, as “the love of my life,” one expects to get a sense of who he is.

After miscarrying twins in 2004 and struggling to complete classes for a two-year degree in accounting from a sketchy, unaccredited “college” in the Mall of America, she became moody and withdrawn. For a time, she rejected certain religious observances, uncovering her hair and even traveling by herself, which is prohibited by strict Muslim tradition. In the fall of 2005 she gave birth to her second child, Adnan, and fell into a depression, suffering from headaches and insomnia while finally mourning the loss of her own mother, her aunt Fos, and Somalia itself. Her “Britney Spears–style meltdown,” as she calls it, made her question her marriage and other choices although she did resume wearing a hijab after Adnan’s birth.

Between 2008 and 2009 she cut off her hair, left her husband, embarked on an “impulsive second marriage,” and enrolled in North Dakota State University at Fargo. The name of her second husband (Ahmed Nur Said Elmi, a British citizen) is omitted entirely; they separated in 2011. The circumstances of that union have been the subject of scurrilous speculation (she is said to have married her own brother in order to obtain citizenship for him, an unsupported charge recently repeated by Trump) and are described in nebulous terms in a single sentence.

It was at college, in Fargo, cooking and caring for her children and volunteering for nutrition programs for immigrants, that Omar began to see the connection between food, poverty, and politics. Counseling youngsters about vitamins, she heard a boy reply, “Really? I don’t even know if I’m going to eat tonight.” She soon switched her focus from nutrition to political science, earning a degree in 2011 after spending a term of work-study abroad that took her back to Kenya and Somalia. There she was able to see the ruins of the family compound in Mogadishu, a cathartic experience that led, on her return to Minnesota, to a reconciliation with her first husband and the birth of their third child, Ilwad (“to see beauty” in Somali), during the summer of 2012, when she was twenty-nine.

From here on, Omar’s path to politics was remarkably swift. It was during that pregnancy that Omar began two months of volunteer work that would lead to her own career as an elected official, knocking on doors for a fellow Somali-American’s primary bid for Minnesota state senator in a special election. The candidate, Mohamud Noor, a computer scientist and activist, was the first Somali in the country to run for higher office. He lost, but it was a close race with heavy turnout from their community, promising significant returns in years to come.

Later the following year she joined Noor’s successful opponent, Kari Dziedzic, as campaign manager, something that she fails to mention here, a significant omission given that Dziedzic’s win doubtless brought Omar to the attention of state party officials. Instead, she emphasizes volunteer work over political ambition, describing herself as a “behind-the-scenes busybody” and focusing on her efforts opposing two state ballot measures, one against gay marriage, the other requiring photo ID for voters. They both went down to defeat. It was during this hectic period, in November 2012, that Omar, on Twitter, voiced opposition to Israel’s missile attack on the Gaza strip: “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” Little noticed at the time and never discussed in this book, the tweet would be rediscovered years later.

In 2013, while working as a child nutrition coordinator for Minnesota’s Department of Education, Omar served as campaign manager for systems engineer Andrew Johnson, who was running for city council at age twenty-nine; when he won, the youngest member ever elected, she became his senior policy aide. In that position, for the first time, she achieved notoriety in Minneapolis politics, targeted during a caucus-turned-fracas in February 2014. A fellow councilman, another Somali-American, had “warned” Johnson to tell Omar to stay home from the caucus and tend to her children. Omar ignored the threat; that night, at the meeting, a dispute over rules devolved into violence, and she was physically beaten by several women as others restrained her. Her first reaction, when a friend came to her aid, was to say, “I will not be bullied.” Her face bloody and swollen, she was taken to the hospital and treated for a concussion.

In 2016, vying for a seat in the Minnesota State House, Omar ran in a primary against the forty-four-year incumbent Phyllis Kahn and prevailed over both her and Noor. She won despite vehement opposition from factions of the Somali community who “flooded” Facebook with faked clips of Omar threatening other clans in a “devilish” male voice, the beginning of widespread hysteria—often from men—over her rise.

Chief among the hysterics would be Donald Trump. His Twitter attacks against her did not begin until 2018, but when he signed the Muslim travel ban shortly after taking office, three weeks after Omar began her term in the Minnesota legislature, he set off “chaos” in her district, including death threats against her. She invited constituents to a meeting about the ban, expecting a modest response, but within an hour received 13,000 RSVPs. She suggests that it was Trump’s policies and reactionary behavior that elevated her to national attention. By 2018, less than two years into her term, she was approached by Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, to run for his seat, a watershed moment. But here the narrative loses coherence, jumping from her frenetic decision to run, to the concern over her appearing in a hijab on the House floor, and then to the furor she set off during her first weeks in office by making a series of anti-Semitic remarks.

Bullying, as a theme, runs throughout the book, yet Omar seems ill-equipped to account for her own aggression. Self-righteously, she frames the uproar over her comments on Israel as arising from “toxic misperceptions” of her own faith. She omits any reference to her “Israel has hypnotized the world” tweet and to the facts that it resurfaced in January 2019 and that she at first chose to defend it. Readers who are unaware of the controversy may not know that she apologized only after the columnist Bari Weiss, in The New York Times, explicated the anti-Semitic history of its language, pointing out that “the myth of Jewish hypnosis” has inspired centuries of retaliation.

That happened days before the tweet she does acknowledge in the book, about the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), which followed in February 2019. “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she wrote, quoting Puff Daddy’s slang for $100 bills. When that was met with outrage, and when Democratic House leadership demanded contrition, she “quickly apologized for using what I learned was an age-old anti-Semitic trope about Jewish control through money,” claiming it was an ill-advised attempt to be “clever.” Yet days later, at a bookstore talk, she was still being clever, questioning why “it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” painting Jews as disloyal in yet another anti-Semitic smear employed over the centuries, from the Middle Ages to Hitler and, for that matter, Trump. You can only plead ignorance so many times.

The melee took place in the midst of another kind of war, one not of words. That same February, there were multiple threats against Omar’s life, some distinctly credible. An FBI investigation was launched after somebody wrote “Assassinate Ilhan Omar” in a Minneapolis gas station bathroom. Christopher Hasson, a US Coast Guard lieutenant and white nationalist who had stockpiled weapons and assembled a hit list, was arrested for plotting to kill her, among many others. The following month, Patrick Carlineo, a Trump supporter in New York State, called Omar’s office and said, “Somebody ought to put a bullet in her skull.” After Carlineo pled guilty to threatening a US official with murder, Omar wrote to the judge to ask for “compassion”; he was sentenced to a year in jail.

Slurs by the president heightened the danger. In April last year, Trump tweeted (wrongly) that Omar had trivialized September 11, touching off another wave of threats “directly referencing” the president’s language. He told Omar and the other women of “the Squad” to “go back” where they came from; of course, only Omar had been born in another country. Two Republicans running for office, Danielle Stella of Minnesota and George Buck of Florida, called for her execution. (A third, Marjorie Taylor Greene, the QAnon supporter who recently won a primary in Georgia, in September posted on Facebook an image of herself posing with an assault rifle next to a montage of the faces of Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, and Tlaib. After Omar called it a “violent provocation,” Facebook removed it.) This, too, is what America looks like, yet Omar avoids going into detail, perhaps to forestall further menace.

Omar’s congressional agenda receives little space compared to these existential matters. In the end, her autobiography may have required more time, reflection, and clarity than its author could provide. Its enlightening account of her refugee experience stands out, but its portrait of her adult life is murky. As a campaign biography meant to burnish her image before the upcoming election, it is already outdated. It appeared six months after she and Ahmed Hirsi divorced for a second time and two months after she embarked, in March 2020, on her third legal marriage, to Tim Mynett, her political consultant and fundraiser. It was released the day after George Floyd was murdered, in her district, on May 25, 2020, and not long before her father, one of the more vivid characters in her story, died of complications of Covid-19, in June. In August she resoundingly won a primary in which her opponent was heavily financed by national groups, including pro-Israel political action committees.

Her bravery is not in question. From its earliest days, her life has been a remarkable feat of survival, testament to an embattled will. “I am, by nature, a starter of fires,” she writes, with justification. It’s clear that many of those were set by others, in the misogynist and anti-Muslim attacks that have stalked her throughout her career. The ones she started herself have been fueled by moral certitude and an almost gleeful belligerence. Where such combustible tendencies may lead her, this book cannot reveal.

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